Before we begin, I’d just like to announce my cyberpunk short’s acceptance into the Fish Eats Lion Redux anthology which, for me, puts the rad into my trad-publishing ambitions.
I’m pretty proud of this piece, since Singaporeans were given priority for acceptance, and here I am, a random Malaysian, just trying to belong among the other talented writers from across the Causeway.
Maybe I’ve finally paid my dues. They say you need to get your first million words down before you get to the good stuff. Or maybe I just got lucky.
Either way, here’s a totally scientific (and totally not anecdotal or anything) post about why short-story writing would benefit the novelist, even if they don’t plan to pursue the genre.
No details needed
The novel is actually pretty lenient when it comes to setting up your story, but that brings its own set of problems, such as having to tie all your loose ends to give your audience the satisfaction they deserve.
Not so with short stories. The thing I enjoy most is that I don’t even need to explain anything I don’t want to, and leave it to my audience to figure things out for themselves.
I could, say, write about traffic jams while time travelling. How did time travel come about in this particular world? I don’t know. What’s my main character’s name? Beats me.
But will the main character be late for his appointment? Even while he’s travelling through time? Now that’s the story I came to explore.
Your short stories could blossom into novels
My first novel (that was also picked up for publication) had actually existed as a short story before it became a book. So short stories, while complete on their own, can turn into a whole lot more if allowed to compost in your mind.
That means that novelists shouldn’t eschew the short story in pursuit of its lengthier counterpart, because some of your juvenile ideas could very well be your next magnum opus.
That Reddit writing prompt you played around with last weekend? That could be a novel. My idea about time travel and traffic jams? That could be a whole series. We’ll never know.
At least until we give it a try.
You can hone your on-spec writing
Writing on-spec means finishing an entire story and sending it out to publishers in hopes that they’ll accept it. Basically, the fiction life in a nutshell.
As a short story writer, you get to do this more often than novelists, with each submission offering you valuable experience of being in the trenches.
At least you won’t have to wade through hundreds of thousands of words only to experience your first rejection (or acceptance).
And if you take things to the next level, you’ll start writing stories for particular calls for submissions instead of sending in your trunk stories that best match the guidelines.
So if you’re looking for writing drills to hone your skills, this is it.
You get to learn through variety
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written myself into a corner, even after completing my sixth novel to date.
You’d think I’d learn my lesson by now, but as a pantser, I’d be 60,000 words deep before realising I’d screwed up.
What’s worse are the legacy mistakes, where one tiny detail at the end of the novel means changing everything else about your story.
With short stories though? The mistake could be your entire plot point. Heck, you could even rewrite your entire story from scratch and still have time to cook dinner.
Also, can we talk about the saggy middle? Oh the grind of it. You could spend months taking potshots in the dark, and you’ll still be fumbling through the same plot.
Doesn’t happen with short stories though. No matter how much you hate a certain premise, you can still finish it and move on to the next one. Which is a pretty good way to practise your storytelling skills.
Because what this teaches you is how to tell a story from beginning to end. And as Chuck Wendig puts it, the best thing you can do as a writer is to finish your shit.
It shows you what matters in a novel
Speaking of saggy middles, do you know what happens in my novels? People travelling from point A to point B. A lot. Like ‘enough walking to get from Asia to the Americas’ a lot.
Even in a story where steel tentacles reach down from the sky to impale the last surviving humans, I still manage to fill it up with scene after scene of mundane commute.
Which is why writing short stories have been beneficial to me. I’ve started to learn what makes a scene tick, and how I can incorporate more tension within each chapter. No more navel-gazing and empty conversations on long walks.
In fact, Chuck Palahniuk writes his books in the same, compartmentalised fashion too. In his book Consider This, he explains how he writes each chapter as a standalone story, before assembling them into what would be a full-length novel. Now ain’t that interesting.
Kill your darlings? What darlings?
Not everybody has the privilege to work under a harsh editor that’ll beat all your self-infatuation out of you (yes, I’m talking about you, Bea). But writing short stories would make a decent enough substitute.
Because for novels, you could write a million words and only feel the sting of rejection maybe ten times. Over ten years. Once they get around to reading your manuscript.
Write the same amount in short stories and you could technically get rejected once a day, every day, for a year straight. Now that’s a lot of learning.
And since I’m convinced that writing is a numbers game more than it is a word game, you’ll definitely gain an objective take on your work through simply writing more short stories.
Also, it’s much easier to distance yourself from a story you wrote in six days versus one you wrote in six months.
Go short to go long
Just like how the sci-fi writer can benefit from reading a romance novel or two, so too can the novelist benefit from practising the art of the short story.
In fact, I’ve learned so much more from short stories than I would have if I’d just stuck to writing novels, that I’m going to commit to writing them on the regular.
At the very least, I’d be getting my million words out of the way. At best? Another short story acceptance.
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